I mean this essay as an addendum to my recent discussion of the theism/atheism debate within modern Satanism. In the comments on that piece, the original author of a blog I briefly mentioned in my somewhat tiresome disquisition noted that the very terms of the debate—theism, atheism—are slightly ambiguous and require some clarification to ensure that everyone is on the same page. She went on to pen her own response in which she offered that some confusion could result from attempting to apply to Neo-Pagan and “Theistic Satanist” points of view and beliefs the sorts of understanding of theism and its putative opposite atheism that historically emerged within the Christian tradition.
In this piece, I’ll first offer a few general thoughts about definitions of key concepts, then essentially move to express my general agreement with the author of Femme Diabolique that self-styled “theistic Satanists” often subscribe to a diffuse and nuanced understanding of Satan as divinity that ill accords with notional conceptions of God within traditional religion (though it matches well enough with some of the similarly diffuse ideas about deity put forward by theologians, as well as with ancient traditions that maintain a separation between local/personal and state-level deities). Even these more articulated and nuanced notions of what godhead means fall subject to the critiques I offered in my initial essay, however. Finally, the main thrust of this article will turn to consideration of the thesis that what is most at stake in debates about theology or, in the case of Satanists, diabology is really not the conception of deity or Satan per se so much as anthropology: that is, the nature and place of humanity vis-à-vis divinity or Devil (this sense of the word anthropology stems from its use in traditional philosophy of religion and the history of Christian doctrine). I will argue that many of the theistically minded among us are drawn to that position primarily as a result of their commitments as to the natures and possibilities inherent in human beings. I will suggest that these ideas conflict somewhat with LaVey’s commitment, evinced in the seventh of his famous Nine Satanic Statements, that “Satan represents man as just another animal.” I very much doubt that theistic Satanists will be swayed by appeal to LaVey’s ideas and writing, so, again, this piece serves more as an explication of my own Satanic ideas and path than a persuasive exhortation to make all Satanic paths like my own. The mantra remains: universalized particularity, not a particular universal.
Definitions I: Theism
In the field of philosophy of religion, which, since its inception, has traditionally existed and operated for the purpose of working out the philosophical theology of the Christian religion, the word theism is used as a cover term for the customary understanding of God in the three Abrahamic religions. This is the familiar conception of God as characterized by the “Holy Trinity” of perfections named by the three omnis—omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence—and threatened by affirmation of the existence of so-called natural evil: that is, evil that has nothing to do with moral agency either on the part of its causes or its victims. Natural evil merely happens and, when it does, impacts and destroys the blameless and the guilty alike.
The ontological threat posed by the existence of natural evil is such that it causes some theistic thinkers to revise the definition of theism itself. Rabbi Harold Kushner and Mormon thinker Sterling McMurrin both advanced the notion that God’s omnipotence is not truly unlimited, such that He is neither responsible for nor ultimately capable of eradicating natural evil. In the case of the Latter-Day Saint religion in particular, the way for such a theological move was amply well paved by Joseph Smith’s “revelation” in Doctrines and Covenants 93 that “the elements are eternal” (D&C 93:33). By “elements” here, Smith meant physical matter, which, in his cosmology, was like “intelligence, or the light of truth” in not having been “created or made” by God (D&C 93:29).
Other theists, however, refuse to allow “mere” human suffering to compromise the supposed excellences of godhead. Thus, you get the C.S. Lewis view of pain as God’s “megaphone to rouse a deaf world” and his view of God as permitting the Devil to cause natural evil in the world because a truly unfettered conception of libertarian free will is just oh so important. Then, too, there are the Pat Robertsons of the world who simply deny that natural evil exists as a separate category of evil altogether and instead collapse it with moral evil, insisting that every horrible natural disaster is God’s punishment visited on humanity for some perceived transgression or sin like acceptance of homosexuality.
SO this is the quagmirish clusterfuck of traditional theism: the technical working out of logically incoherent putative perfections that quite quickly run both into commonsense objections—a standard medieval argument against God’s omnipotence was to ask: Can God create a stone so heavy that He Himself cannot lift it?—and against the grain of our everyday experience of the world, in which it often seems, at every turn, that the evil prosper and the good suffer. I honestly don’t think that anyone imputes such a view to self-described “theistic Satanists.” Indeed, so much of the dark humor in the recent Netflix reboot of Sabrina stems from its caricatured treatment of “The Dark Lord” as precisely an exact and opposite copy of the Christian God (omnipotent, omniscient, and omnimalevolent—well, quasi omnimalevolent: He doesn’t work evil and destruction against His own designs), while the hierarchy and ministerium of His “Church of Night” comprise shadowy replicas of the corrupt and abusive clerical structures of mainline Christianity, Catholicism especially. That the titular teenage (Satanic?) witch so completely and ably resists them all stands as elegant testimony to the witness over the years of so many of us on the darker paths that we are most emphatically not merely inverting Abrahamic religion and organizing ourselves in opposite-but-equal power structures for the purposes of glorying in the polar negation of all the life and love that the theistic God supposedly stands for.
Definitions II: Atheism
The word atheism is etymologically composed of three Greek morphemes: the so-called alpha privative prefix a-, the noun theos meaning ‘god,’ and the deverbal nominalizing suffix -ismós, English -ism, used to form abstract nouns having to do with action, state, condition, and ideology. The key issue with this term stems from the alpha privative prefix which, as its technical name suggests, serves to indicate a privation of the quality denoted by the noun to which it attaches. Thus, asymmetry is the absence or privation of symmetry. So similarly atheism is the absence or privation of theism, which could logically work out to meaning one of at least two different things.
First, the atheist could be merely one who regards talk and thought of god(s) as fundamentally irrelevant to human life on planet earth. I have championed this very idea in quoting the words of the maiden Siduri to the eponymous hero of the Epic of Gilgamesh, where she explained to him the nature of human existence thusly:
“Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to? You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.”
Yet note that the “lot of Man” explained in this way actually owes its existence to the very selfish actions of the gods who reserved eternal life for themselves alone and gave humanity earthly pleasures as a “runner-up” type of prize. This fact should serve to remind us all that, however irrelevant we personally judge the idea of moralizing (often anthropomorphic) gods active in human affairs, religions that view their Big Gods as very much relevant—and adherents to such religions who are willing to go to great lengths to impress upon the rest of us mentally, emotionally, and even physically the rightness of their ideas—have been, and continue to be, basic facts of life with which we absolutely have to deal.
So the other possible way of parsing the meaning of atheism is not merely a passive commitment to the gods’ lack of relevance to human life, but a very active commitment to the privation of the very idea of gods itself. In this way, atheism hashes out to mean, in essence, anti-theism, the self-conscious rejection of doctrines of gods and their efficacy in our world or claim on our lives in order to achieve liberation of humanity from its most potent and noxious self-shackling. Most atheistic Satanists I have met and dealt with are not simply passively atheistic; they are positively anti-theistic in their outlook, seeking in one way or another to combat and even dismantle traditional religious ideas and practices when these latter come into conflict with the ways in which others not of a given religious persuasion forge their paths through life. In case you somehow couldn’t tell from the strident tone of my previous essay on this topic, I am most definitely an active anti-theist.
Limited and Diffuse Theistic Conceptions
Due largely to the unseemly vanity and easy countering of traditional theistic notions of godhead, many thinkers committed to some concept of god as “real” and even efficacious in their lives have chosen to abstract away from the most anthropocentric conceptions of deity and to favor instead diffuse ideas about god(s) as “the ground of all being,” as the quintessence(s) of life or love or other human emotional and intellectual concerns, as impersonal forces holding it all together or, in the case of theistic Satanism perhaps, forcing it all apart, or the like. In my last essay, I gave a nod to theistic Satanist Diane Vera who champions a conception of Satan somewhat along these lines as a divine personification of heresy and putting all orders to the test. Vera and her Church of Azazel, however, also champion what she calls “hard polytheism”: that is, they assent to the existence of a multiplicity of temporal and local divinities who have a concern for humans and human affairs at the personal, as opposed to universal, level. In this way, her notion resembles quite closely what the author of Femme Diabolique writes about when discussing the Neo-Pagans with whom she associates and how they are “working with this or that god” in a direct, personal relationship. In ancient Greece, too, popular religion was characterized by a multiplicity of personal daimons (origin of English demon) with whom humans forged working relations and on whom humans called for guidance, support, power, and the like. The point here is that I totally agree with Léonie666 when she quite correctly observes that professing a “theistic” commitment in the new religious movements of Satanism and Neo-Paganism need not implicate traditional theism in any way.
I do still very much think that even these diffuse and local theistic conceptions are open to attack on the fronts I signaled in my previous piece and, for my part, do still reject these approaches to Satanism. Though, lying somewhere halfway between prescriptivist and descriptivist positions on modern Satanism, I’m not willing to impugn anyone else’s Satanic path so long as it steers well clear of the abomination of wedding Satanism to racism, fascism, and ethnonationalist sympathies and tendencies. (Despite my—as usual!—lengthy and complex fulminations on this latter matter, I recently saw a comment on Twitter that provides the simplest and, because of that, most elegant rejection of racism on Satanic principle that I’ve yet to come across (I’d link to it, but it appears the OP took it down for some unknown reason). The comment read simply: “Racism is groupthink and herd mentality,” two qualities which should most definitely prove anathema to modern Satanists if anything ever could!) In a like vein, I do also deny that those who view Satanism as the appropriate domain for realizing their authoritarian fantasies and proclivities have any proper claim on the religion. In championing an authoritarian Satan(ism), they clearly signal a fundamental failure to apprehend what any valid idea of Satan holds at is very core. There’s that dark humor in Netflix’ Sabrina again, which managed to deeply disturbe some self-professedly on the Left Hand Path. Perhaps an indication that the caricature struck a little too close to home??
SO—dammit!—I reckon I’m a prescriptivist after all. Oh well: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines” and all that. I chart my own path.
In what follows, I’m going to do precisely that and move past these terminological issues and even the theistic/atheistic “debate” itself to suggest that what’s really most at stake in all these wranglings is not actually the nature of God/Satan, or rather Satan as god, but indeed our respective understandings of the nature and inherent possibilities of being human. This is going to be a long ride, but hopefully also a fun and reasonably informative one.
Inextricable Linkage Between Anthropology and Theology
58 BCE was a bad year for Roman writer, orator, and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero. His political nemesis, a populist politician by the name of Publius Clodius Pulcher, had managed to get Cicero exiled from Rome for technically illegal actions undertaken during his consular term four years earlier in suppressing a plot against the state. Clodius not only had the orator’s estate confiscated, he also managed to get a portion of it dedicated as a shrine to the goddess Libertas (“Liberty”), thus effectively rendering it off limits to all future use by Cicero or any other mortal individual.
The choice of divine dedicatee was no accident: Clodius’ smear campaign against the statesman had involved accusations of Cicero’s having acted without regard for individual liberty during his consular campaign against the so-called Second Catilinarian Conspiracy (which, not coincidentally involved the eponymous Catiline charging the Senate with throwing its support behind Cicero, a novus homo or ‘new man,’ over and against himself, a nobilis or member of the traditional Roman noble classes). Cicero, he charged, had deprived some of the captured conspirators of due process, having them executed without a proper trial. In this way, in Clodius’ estimation, Cicero had permitted himself the liberty of behaving almost like a king, a dirty word in Ancient Rome if ever there was one, ever since the legendary days at the city’s founding when it was ruled by Etruscan monarchs belonging to the dynastic family of the Tarquins. For good reason, the last king of that line bore the ominous sobriquet of Superbus or “The Arrogant” and was also the last king or rex Rome ever suffered to rule. (The future emperors were careful never to claim the title of rex.)
Clodius must have even gone one better at some point in his arguments against Cicero’s haughty behavior as consul, apparently lobbing the bald accusation that the statesman was guilty not only of acting the part of an arrogant king, but even of comparing himself directly with the god Jupiter. In his speech before the college of priests to recover his home following his return to Rome in 57 BCE, Cicero addressed his accuser directly on this point:
“You claim that I am accustomed to say I am Jove, and, at the same time, to bandy it about that Minerva is my sister. Yet I am not so insolent as to say I am Jupiter, nor so uneducated as to think that Minerva is sister to Jove.” (De Domo Sua 92)
Cicero opened himself up to attack on this front through his own rhetoric concerning his time in consular service in putting down the Conspiracy. In his own writings and speeches, Cicero increasingly spoke of himself as savior of the Roman Republic, using terms that assimilated him ever more closely to the father of the gods, Jupiter himself. Over the course of his speech against the ringleader of the conspiracy he exposed, Cicero increasingly confuses his own will and actions with divine providence and agency, his own role in protecting the city and citizens of Rome with that of Jupiter.
For his part, Cicero didn’t stop in his retaliation against Clodius at making a dig at his opponent’s ignorant mix-up over divine family relations, as in the quote above. He also turned to impugning Clodius’ sexual conduct, characterizing the populist as an “impure and impious enemy to all religion who, contrary to what is religiously proper [or, in Latin, fas], often acted as a woman with men and as a man with women.” What Cicero means here is that Clodius played both a passive role as sexual partner to men and an active role as sexual partner to women.
In ancient Rome, the physical and moral terms and conceptions of homosexual versus heterosexual were nonexistent and, therefore, meaningless. What mattered was whether the individual acted with partners of whichever sex in either an active (giving) or a passive (receiving) role. The Latin sexual vocabulary reflected this divide in having different words and grammatical forms to describe the giving and receiving roles of the same sex act. The active role in oral sex performed with penis and mouth, for instance, was described by the verb irrumare ‘to put one’s penis in another’s mouth for oral sex’; “I’ll stuff your gobs” ran one particularly spirited British translation of Catullus’ threat irrumabo in his 16th poem. The passive role was described by fellare ‘to suck a penis,’ the nominal form of which was the now-familiar fellatio. So long as the role remained constant, it didn’t matter whether one chose to make love with same-sex or different-sex partners. To play both sides of the critical boundary between active and passive sexual roles, however, whether for a man or a woman, was considered the height of perversion. Moreover, good, viril Roman men generally avoided the passive role in sexual relations entirely. [Editorial note: The author of the article on ancient sexuality linked here was, for a while during one of my stints in graduate school, a mentor of sorts and advisor on my thesis committee. He is now a convicted fellon, serving time in federal prison for soliciting , harboring, and sharing child pornography. Just in case you wonder about the nature of my connection to him, let me, as a father to two young daughters, be very clear: Fuck Holt Parker, the man and his despicable deeds. When I went to defend my thesis before him and my primary advisor, I had my then-baby first daughter with me in tow, a memory which absolutely gives me chills. I would say there’s a special place reserved in hell, but Satan won’t have such a specimen: he’ll have to make do with the company of the countless molestors from the clergy of traditional religions who, I suppose, sit in serene oblivion within their hell of a heaven, wherever that is. In the most delicious of ironies involving what Jeffrey Burton Russell calls “natural diabology,” however, Parker’s scholarship remains important in the domain of ancient Roman and Greek sexuality. So I cite it here through gritted teeth.] Cicero characterized Clodius’ perversion in playing both sides of the active-passive divide with women and men, respectively, as so extreme that it ran afoul of the very foundational principle of propriety in ancient Roman religion: fas.
In speaking before the pontificate to assert his right to take back possession over his property, Cicero again harped on Clodius’ impiety, this time in non-sexual terms:
“In truth, if no robber was ever so savage and inhuman, as, when he had plundered temples, and then, having been excited by dreams or some superstitious feelings, consecrated some altar on a desert shore, not to shudder in his mind when compelled to propitiate with his prayers the deity whom he has insulted by his wickedness; what do you suppose must have been the agitation of mind of that plunderer of every temple, and of every house, and of the whole city, when he was consecrating one single altar to avert the vengeance due to his numberless acts of wickedness?” (De Domo Sua 140)
The word he uses for the first instance of “temple” in this passage is a derivative of the term fas: fana, the plural of fanum, a word brought over into archaic English in the form fane, as in The Devil’s Fane. Modern scholars are divided on the subject of the origin of the term fas and the related fanum (originally fas-num meaning ‘place of the fas’), but a common ancient Roman folk etymology clearly derived it from the verb fari, fatus, meaning ‘to say, speak, or declare.’ The first-century BCE scholar Marcus Terentius Varro wrote that Roman sanctuaries were called fana because, in sanctifying them, Roman priests declared (fati sint) their boundaries (De Lingua Latina IV.54). Varro’s younger contemporary, the historian Livy, seems to rely on a similar etymology for the word, writing: “But it had been a shrine (fanum) only, that is a place publicly declared (effatus) for a temple” (Ad Urbe Condita 10.37.15).
Once ritually proclaimed by a priest in a dedicatory act, the boundaries of a fanum or sanctuary could not be transgressed by those who were not priests. They thus marked territory that was prohibited to mere mortals. Offerings to the gods would be brought right up to those sacred boundaries and left in front of or before the fanum, literally pro fano. When an object had been so dedicated to the gods, it would be taken into the sanctuary by a priest or priestess, immediately becoming the property of the gods and the priests who represented them and strictly off limits to human beings outside of the priestly profession. In this practice lie the origins of the distinction between the sacred and, quite literally, the profane, as well as the curious semantic double-edge to the Roman word sacer, sacra, sacrum ‘sacred’ that could also mean ‘accursed’ in the sense of “in the hands of the gods and strictly off limits to humans: Do. Not. Touch.”
By using the terms and tenets of Roman religion to have Cicero’s confiscated estate declared, at least in part, a fanum, Clodius had hoped to ensure that a haughty Cicero would be humbled and not again have possession or use of his own property. By smearing Clodius as acting sexually contrary to fas, Cicero hoped to ensure that his political opponent would not again enjoy positive reputation as a right-thinking and -behaving Roman man. What all this wrangling over fas and fana shows us moderns quite clearly is that concern for the domain of the gods among these ancient Romans really masked a more primary concern for the limits and boundaries containing and constraining human activity toward fellow humans.
Romans had always had a complicated relationship with the concept of humans excelling and, in that excellence, seeming to rival the gods for power and prestige. Though they had inherited from the Hellenistic Greeks the basic idea of humans becoming divine—or at least godlike—by dint of their extraordinary attributes and accomplishments, the Romans innovated by adding a unique concentration on and discussion of the actual processes by which such a divinization might occur, as well as a healthy discourse on the propriety of such transformations. Cicero himself has been credited as a major force in enunciating and shaping this discourse. His works abound with discussions of the “divine” characteristics of great Romans, perhaps none more so than the military general, politician, and sometime-ally/sometime-rival of Julius Caesar, Gnaeus Pompeius, better known in English simply as Pompey.
It is ironic, then, that it was Julius Caesar, and not Pompey, who was accorded divine honors in Rome during his own lifetime. After the decisive final battle in his civil war against the Republic at Munda in southern Spain in 45 BCE, Caesar’s statue began to be carried in festival processions at Rome alongside that of the divine embodiment of the Roman State, Romulus-Quirinus. Another statue of him was placed within the temple of Quirinus itself. Both of these moves constituted extraordinary divine honors that grated on Cicero, not because he opposed the idea of deifying human beings—indeed, when his own daughter Tullia died in the winter of 45, Cicero briefly proposed in writing to have her divinized—but simply because he favored the political faction of Pompey and thought him a more excellent man than Caesar.
The first-century CE Greek biographer Plutarch records that, in his campaigns around the eastern Mediterranean to put down a pirate menace operating out of what is now southern Turkey, Pompey felt that he just had to stop en route at Athens, despite his haste, and go into the city to sacrifice to the gods and speak to the people (Life of Pompey 27.3). Even in its twilight, Athens continued to enjoy international fame as the traditional seat of the wisdom, learning, and artistry of Classical Greece. On leaving the city, the great general read two single-line verses dedicated to him and inscribed on each side of the city gate. Within the gate, he read:
“Insofar as you know that you are a human being, to that degree you are a god.”
On the outside of the gate, he read:
“We were awaiting you, we were making obeisance to you, we have now seen you, we send you forth.”
Certainly the verb translated as “making obeisance” (prosekunoumen προσεκυνοῦμεν) refers to prostration and worship in a religious or divine kingly context, but the first verse states plainly that Pompey’s sole claim to godhood stemmed from his sure knowledge of his own humanity. The two messages don’t mesh well together on the surface. The clue to the verses’ interpretation can be found, I believe, in a passage of Cicero’s praise of Pompey’s self-restraint.
Unlike other men afoot in the Mediterranean with powerful armies behind them, Pompey did not give in to lust for pursuit of pleasure, plunder, or luxury. Rather he sailed on rapidly toward his legitimate objectives. In particular, “when it came to statues, pictures, and other adornments of Greek cities which other men think are for the taking, Pompey did not even deem them worthy of a sight-seeing tour from him” (De Lege Manilia 14.40). In this way, the great general contrasted signally with the former governor of Sicily, Gaius Verres, whom Cicero had lambasted (and prosecuted!) for precisely the crime of plunder, particularly of the statues of the gods (In Verrem 2.4.151). Pompey proved worthy of veneration by the citizens of Athens because he had entered the city respectfully, sacrificed to the gods like all good people must do, and delivered an address, before walking promptly back out again without taking so much as a souvenir.
The verses inscribed for Pompey on the city gate at Athens hint at that uniquely Greek virtue of not acting out of place for a mere mortal by thinking you are a god and can do as you please. Though in English we think of the Greek term hubris as primarily meaning sinful, overweening pride to the extent of thinking one can vie directly with the gods, the word actually had a more concrete application to human affairs. In Rhetoric 1378b 5-6, Aristotle defined hubris in this way:
“Hubris consists in causing injury or annoyance whereby the sufferer is disgraced, not to obtain any other advantage for oneself besides the performance of the act, but for one’s own pleasure; for retaliation is not hubris, but punishment.  The cause of the pleasure felt by those who commit hubris is the idea that, in ill-treating others, they are more fully showing superiority. That is why the young and the wealthy are given to hubris; for they think that, in committing hubris, they are showing their superiority. Dishonor is characteristic of hubris….”
Hubris so defined thus anticipates the definition philosopher Aaron James gives to the concept of the asshole that I wrote about in the previous post: to wit, “The asshole (1) allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically; (2) does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and (3) is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.” The concept and terminology of Greek hubris, by the way, also enjoyed clear, common usage to demonize proscribed sexual perversion, just like the Roman word fas.
Pompey was divine precisely because he did not give in to hubris in either the human-to-human or the human-to-gods sense. Thus, he did not become the asshole and try to lord it over Athens like a capricious god. You can almost hear the audible sigh of relief in the final verse on the outside of the gate: Bye now! Thanks for coming! it seems to say, adding sotto voce, And thank God you didn’t take anything! Being celebrated as a human god in antiquity had a lot to do with public reputation, outward behavior, and popular acclaim. Without these crucial ingredients, striving for godhood was simply acting out of place—a matter of not knowing your station—and was liable to punishment, as poor old Commodus, the emperor who inspired Joaquin Phoenix’ mentally unbalanced character in the 2000 Ridley Scott film Gladiator, learned to his grisly dismay.
Highly egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies sought to defuse the potential time bomb of outsized personal regard on the part of outstanding and excellent members of their small bands by enacting reverse dominance hierarchies, including managing individuals’ reputations and cutting accomplishments back down to size through practices like “insulting the meat,” something anthropologist Richard Lee humorously learned of first-hand. They did this in order to protect the sovereignty of individual will and inviolability of the physical person of all members of the group. Someone strong and surpassing enough to rise to prominence and declare himself sole leader and group decision-maker threatened the stasis of high individualistic, egalitarian hunting-and-gathering groups where decision-making was traditionally distributed throughout the band and divergent perspectives were respected.
Once Ara Norenzayan’s “Big Gods” come onto the scene around the time of, and over the course of, the Neolithic Revolution some twelve-to-seven-or-so thousand years ago, we begin to see in ancient religions similar concern for thwarting assholes through reverse dominance hierarchy, only now, responsibility for enacting reverse dominance is farmed out to the moralizing high gods. The inciting action in the Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2100 BCE) involves precisely the eponymous “hero” acting the part of the asshole, attempting to lord it over the citizens of Uruk, who promptly pray to Aruru to create and send “one mighty in strength” to vie with and subdue Gilgamesh:
“In Uruk-the-Sheepfold he walks back and forth,
like a wild bull lording it, head held aloft.
He has no equal when his weapons are brandished,
his companions are kept on their feet by his contests.
Though powerful, pre-eminent, expert and mighty,
Gilgamesh lets no girl go free to her bridegroom.’
The warrior’s daughter, the young man’s bride,
to their complaint the goddesses paid heed.
‘Let them summon Aruru, the great one,
she it was created them, mankind so numerous:
let her create the equal of Gilgamesh, one mighty in strength,
and let him vie with him, so Uruk may be rested!’
‘Let him be a match for the storm of his heart, let them vie
with each other, so Uruk may be rested!’ ”
A similar pattern repeats in the Gathas or “Hymns” of Zoroaster, most likely datable to around 1200 BCE. In Yasna 46 of the Ushtavaiti Gatha on ‘Having Happiness,’ Zoroaster writes:
“I know wherefore, O Mazda, I have been unable (to achieve) anything. Only a few herds are mine (and therefore it is so) and because I have got but few people. I cry unto thee, see thou to it, O Ahura, granting me support a friend gives to friend. Teach me through the Right what the acquisition of Good Thought is. The Liar stays the supporter of Right from prospering the cattle in district and province, infamous that he is, repellent in his actions. Whoso, Mazda, robs him of dominion or of life, he shall go before and prepare the ways of the good belief. But whoso when thus approached should refuse his aid, he shall go to the abodes of the company of the Liar. For he is himself a Liar, who is very good to a Liar, he is a righteous man to whom a righteous man is dear, since thou hast created men’s Selves in the beginning, O Ahura. Whoso is minded to injure my possessions, from his actions may no harm come to me! Back upon himself may they come with hostility, against his own person, all the hostile (acts), to keep him far from the Good Life, Mazda, not from the ill!.”
All of this goes to show the following. At all points in our common social evolution as homo sapiens sapiens, human beings have evinced special concern to limit and control the damage posed by assholes: that is, by individuals of surpassing strength and mind who would, on the basis of their “excellent” qualities, seek to lord it over others in both will and physical person, all the while turning a deaf ear to any and all complaints and calls for redress. Once moralizing high gods emerge on the scene relatively late in our shared evolution, the domain of theology is increasingly invoked in both celebrating and containing human potential. Doctrines of divinity both give voice to human aspirations for overcoming the limitations imposed by our “creaturely,” embodied natures and impose limits on the exercise of those aspirations when it comes to our treatment of fellow humans.
Fas, hubris, fane: these terms carefully circumscribe the proper domains of both human beings and gods and allot to each carefully managed roles and limitations. Theorizing about and appealing to “the gods” is thinking about the basic nature and proper conduct of human beings in a world of other human beings. Thus, theology is anthropology. The human-divine figure of Jesus is perhaps the ultimate familiar expression of this fact, as is the related fact that some of the earliest and most bitter of Christian theological controversies were Christological controversies, all of which involved anthropology as a significant component.
Anthropology, not Diabology
In his discussion of the grounds for Michael Aquino’s 1975 split with Anton LaVey and the Church of Satan in his book Children of Lucifer: The Origins of Modern Religious Satanism, scholar Ruben van Luijk makes a point of central importance to this discussion:
“Arguably the most profound disambiguation with respect to LaVeyan Satanism concerned the Temple’s [i.e. Temple of Set’s] anthropology. Like LaVey, Aquino also saw man as a ‘true, complete, ultimate divinity,’ at least in potentiality. But in stark contrast to LaVey’s view of man as ‘just another animal,’ this divine potential was to be found in the creative and conscious essence of the human being. … Ultimately, it was this view of man as a spiritual, creative entity that lay at the base of the Temple’s theology and much of its practical outlook.” (p. 353).
The Temple of Set’s theistic diabology stemmed first and foremost from Aquino’s commitment to a certain type of anthropology: that is, a certain belief about the nature and possibilities of being human, in particular his assertion of humanity’s spiritual nature and of the perfectibility of human will even unto eventual life after death. His diabology, which posited a Set-Satan as the ultimate intelligent and powerful will, was an expression of that anthropological commitment. In the end, Aquino’s notion of progressing in the development of will until some envisioned future apotheosis or purely spiritual existence post-death bears a striking similarity to the Mormon idea of eternal progression that I’ve written about before. And these ideas really do stand in near-polar opposition to the vision of humanity offered in the seventh of LaVey’s Nine Satanic Statements: to wit, “Satan represents man as just another animal, sometimes better, more often worse than those that walk on all-fours, who, because of his ‘divine spiritual and intellectual development,’ has become the most vicious animal of all!”
Pay special attention to the final, non-restrictive relative clause in that statement: “who, because of his ‘divine spiritual and intellectual development,’ has become the most vicious animal of all” (emphasis added). Far from idolizing human perfectibility in “spiritual and intellectual development” and raising that ideal of progression to the level of the divine, LaVey baldly asserts the basic animal nature of human beings despite our abilities in the realms of the spirit and the intellect. Indeed, the latter make us nothing if not even more vicious animals. The disconnect between LaVey’s and Aquino’s conceptions here is profound. Van Luijk elsewhere reports that LaVey seemed relatively ambivalent about Aquino’s theistic statements regarding Satan and indeed even liked, praised, and used some of the eventual Temple of Set founder’s theistic language in his own celebrations and rituals. Despite his apparent tolerance of theistic language and phraseology when applied to Satan, however, on this point of basic anthropology, LaVey stands worlds apart from his one-time “loyal lieutenant,” as van Luijk describes Aquino (p. 350).
Think for a second about the increasingly out-in-the-open epidemic of sexual abuses of authority within modern religious hierarchies of all types. Think about allegations of lavish lifestyles and spending habits among both Catholic clergy and the ranks of mega-church pastors and televangelists. Think about the #MeToo movement and the ever-burgeoning knowledge the public has about men in positions of power in business, entertainment, and politics enjoying lives of such unbridled privilege and power that they blithely assume they can also lay claim to (and hands on!) others’ bodies for their own immediate gratification. Hell, think about Dr. Holt Parker, whom I described briefly above: widely respected and authoritative scholar who, when told in a Dark Web internet chatroom of a “video of a 4-year-old ‘crying’ during a sex act,” allegedly responded: “love that, show me, please!” Despite serious and societally acknowledged, even celebrated, “spiritual and intellectual development,” all of these offenders nonetheless manage to act as complete “animals,” responding first and foremost to their lusts for power, sex, money, and attainment of pleasure. Think, too, of long-lasting marriages ruined for a single clandestine fuck; of careers tanked for a single unwanted kiss or grope; of academic reputation scuttled because of deviant sexual compulsion that delights in the pain of small children.
I want you to recognize and consider an even darker side to accomplishment and human striving as well: not just our seeming inability to escape animal drives despite such accomplishment, but of the very propensity of societally recognized power and accomplishment itself to underwrite and justify such abuses of others. In his treatment of totalitarian state regimes seeking to enforce what he calls “High Modernism” (examples of which include Soviet collectivization, German Nazism, Apartheid-era South Africa, and even possibly the Rwandan Genocide of 1994), anthropologist and political scientist James C. Scott holds up the example of of Swiss-French designer, urban planner, and culture critic Le Corbusier (né Charles Édouard Jeanneret) as a principal (and quite literal) architect and exponent of the ideology in its most sterile and authoritarian aspect. Le Corbusier may never have turned out to be another Hitler or the like, but that’s not because he wasn’t ideologically inclined in that direction, merely principally as a result of the fact that he never got his hands around the reigns of political power. Le Corbusier instituted and proselytized a veritable cult of what he called simply “the Plan.” In his seminal 1935 work The Radiant City (La Ville Radieuse), the planner explained:
“The despot is not a man. It is the Plan. The correct, realistic, exact plan, the one that will provide your solution once the problem has been posited clearly, in its entirety, in its indispensable harmony. This plan has been drawn up well away from the frenzy in the mayor’s office or the town hall, from the cries of the electorate or the laments of society’s victims. It has been drawn up by serene and lucid minds. It has taken account of nothing but human truths. It has ignored all current regulations, all existing usages, and channels. It has not considered whether or not it could be carried out with the constitution now in force. It is a biological creation destined for human beings and capable of realization by modern techniques” (p. 154).
Le Corbusier situated at the center of many of his urban plans a “monumental axis” around which stood massive showpieces of open plazas and officially designed public venues like stadiums and concert halls. Le Corbusier banished from his planning the smaller, informal gathering spaces like lively, inviting street corners and neighborhood squares surrounded by mixed-use buildings, effectively offering up as sacrifices on the altar of his High Modernist axis the unplanned, organic mingling spaces and activities of citizenry on the ground. In this way, Le Corbusier created sterile, dead spaces at the centers of his cities that would exalt “the Plan” and objectives of the planners over the needs and desires of the ordinary citizens. This practice created a kind of carefully orchestrated, but un-peopled, desert at the ornamental heart of the High Modernist city.
When American-Canadian journalist, author, and activist Jane Jacobs published her 1961 rebuttal of Le Corbusier’s High Modernist city planning entitled The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she emphasized precisely the sorts of mixed-use neighborhoods that the Swiss-French planner had banished from his “Plan.” Jacobs stressed individuals in such environments being on what she called “sidewalk terms” with one another, meaning that they all remained conscious of their shared space and their collective desire to live well there. In this informal way, they created an “almost unconscious network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves…enforced by the people themselves.” Despite the ideological motivation within the thoroughly discredited area of so-called Social Darwinism to paint nature as “red in tooth and claw,” more recent work in animal biology and ecology has revealed that a natural, if fragile, self-regulating “sidewalk” stasis characterizes many ecological niches throughout the world, where animals coexist and even cooperate toward the end of mutually beneficial existence. Game theory has reenforced this point.
Though LaVey himself subscribed to a Social Darwinian outlook, he nevertheless rightly recognized that the very human viciousness that could make a chaotic hell out of otherwise orderly social existence stemmed principally from two main sources: 1) human striving for universal idealized intellectual and spiritual development (High Modernism and other utopian development schemes exemplify this tendency at the macrolevel; demagogues like Donald Trump and Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte exemplify it at a more individual level); and 2) seeking to enforce universal behavioral consistency within plans for realizing such idealized intellectual and spiritual development (or bending others to the will of preeminent and powerful individuals and their plans).
Social Darwinism is a pernicious lie when treated as a naturalistic description of the so-called “state of nature,” but it remains a fairly accurate portrayal of the artificial social nature and reality created by human beings striving to rise above their limitations in an ethically and morally myopic way. As with Le Corbusier’s “Plan,” our schemes for overcoming the limitations of our animal natures, “drawn up by serene and lucid minds,” tend to ignore not just “all current regulations, all existing usages, and channels,” but indeed the moral reality of other individuals, their unique thoughts and plans unto themselves, and their own, divergent lifeways. Once you allow the deontic spirit of “the Plan,” path, or way to enjoy its own concrete, reified, and hypostatized existence and expression, its very externalization underwrites its own justification for writing over individual differences and divergence. In his cities, Le Corbusier sought to pave over local distinctiveness and warrens of individuality in service to the enforced sameness and glorification of “the Plan.” The aspirational, striving spirit of traditional religion, with its ultimate aim of human “spiritual and intellectual development,” has traditionally and historically worked toward that selfsame end, to the very great detriment of individuals caught up in its machinations.
If, in philosopher Aaron James’ conception, the asshole requires entitlement and license to behave without regard for the moral reality of other human beings, I would argue—and I think Anton LaVey would agree—that the principal of exalting humanity’s ability for “spiritual and intellectual development” provides one surefire way of providing that sense of license and entitlement. And societies like our own, drawn along the lines of what anthropologist James Woodburn and social psychologist Leonard L. Martin term “delayed-return” organization and outlook, provide positive incentives to individuals to seek such “development” and to use attainment of their goals as a basis on which to attempt to lord it over others. We exalt and elevate, rather than seek to control and denigrate, those who achieve statuses eventually—even ineluctably—leading to their becoming assholes, plastering their images on media, writing books extolling them and urging emulation of their “paths to success,” and excusing their many abuses as moments of “weakness” or of giving in to “temptation.” They “humbly” and “sincerely” say their mea culpas, perhaps settle out of court with money paid and non-disclosure agreements freshly inked, and then blithely proceed to rinse and repeat ad nauseam. And to all of that I say: Fuck off!
Without the “respectability” of claiming “spiritual and intellectual development,” we can see ourselves as the animal beings we are. And without the “civilizing” delayed-return lifeways we have constructed that reward, rather than definitively punish, dominance, we have a hope of achieving the simple life of individual freedom of will and body that highly egalitarian, immediate-return hunter-gatherers so carefully protected. I’m not saying: let’s turn back the social evolutionary clock, if any such there be. Rather, my mantra is: make society sociable again and return to us all our very deep evolutionary patrimony of sovereignty of will and inviolability of physical person in a world where we live “sidewalk terms” with one another, not at each other’s throats in a zero-sum contest for supremacy and dominance. Let’s be the simple, sensual, sexual, orexic animals we are by nature: warily watching one another, acting together to constrain the worst of our individual impulses, and not allowing some putative idealized “development” of personal strength or attainment to cover our many “sins” against our fellows. The only “godlike” quality in most excellence lies in the potential of the exalted person to become a like a tyrant.
If I desire intellectual development, I take classes, read books, and discuss ideas with like-minded folk. If I desire physical gratification, I drink, eat, fuck, and shit. If I desire what Joseph Campbell called “the rapture of being alive,” an idea he credited as the most basic function of religion and “spiritual” paths, I do all of these things in the here and now, without violating others and without apologizing for my “base” drives and their satisfaction. Any talk of something higher or more “spiritual” than that sets off my asshole radar like nothing else. I see cults, cult leaders, and cult followings in the offing. And to all of that I say again: Kindly go fuck the heaven off!